Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Mobile Broadband Group (MBG)

  1.  The Mobile Broadband Group ("MBG"—whose members are O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Vodafone and 3) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Committee's timely inquiry into harmful content on the Internet and in video games.

  2. The MBG notes that the Committee will accept as submissions responses to the Byron review and we have pleasure in attaching our response to that review. We also note that the scope of the Committee's inquiry goes wider and we therefore offer some additional comments in relation to the regulatory settlement and the mobile operators' specific role in delivering an appropriate environment for its customers.


  3.  The Committee is particularly looking at the effectiveness of the regulatory regime for dealing with a range of potentially harmful content on the Internet.

  4.  To get a clear picture of the answer, it is necessary to ask not one question but two. First, what are, in fact, the regulatory arrangements for considering such matters of public concern? And secondly, how well are the existing arrangements doing their job?

  5.  For there to be a successful regulatory regime, the public has to be satisfied both with the institutional settlement and have confidence in the way regulation is actually delivered. As a general rule, there will be greater consensus over the former than the latter.

  6.  To expand on this point, the regulatory settlement for TV broadcast is the dual headed Ofcom & BBC Trust arrangement. While not everyone agrees with this outcome, there is very little day to day debate about the institutional arrangements, even though there is regular and vigorous public debate about the individual decisions they take.

  7. A similar situation persists in advertising, where there has been a co- and self-regulatory settlement involving the Office of Fair Trading, Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority. Again, there is no day to day discussion of the institutional arrangements, even though there is often controversy over the individual decisions.

  8.  The Press Complaints Commission is a further example. The newspapers and the regulation of newspapers have traditionally been much more controversial. Quite frequently, the PCC and the newspaper editors have been told that they are "drinking in the last chance saloon" of self-regulation. But on each occasion, the Government has decided that self-regulation is better than the alternatives.

  9.  With respect to the Internet, there is no equivalent regulatory settlement. There is no widely articulated view of what arrangements could best meet our needs. There is no public consensus as to how best to approach the issue. This is especially problematic when the complexity and ever evolving nature of online services renders regulation by a single or even dual bodies next to impossible. It is not therefore surprising that there is a perception of public worry and it is not surprising that we are struggling to deal efficiently with the issues being considered by the Committee.

  10.  And so the first question the Committee should consider is how best to arrive at a coherent view of the institutional arrangements that we have and need.

  11.  The MBG believes that most of the building blocks are, in fact, available, viable and functioning well. What is lacking is an overview of these building blocks that can demonstrate the majority of causes for concern are currently governed by either law, formal, co or self-regulation or business rules. Such an overview would enable the building blocks to be defined and presented within a coherent framework that everyone understands and believes in. This will go a considerable way (although not all the way) to calming a perception among some of the general public that the Internet is out of control.

  12.  Excellent work is being done by self-regulatory groups, Ofcom, The Home Office Task Force for Child Protection on the Internet, Get Safe On line, the Internet Watch Foundation, the Cyberbullying Task Force and many others. It is just not being drawn together in a way that the public understands or gives them confidence that all reasonable steps are being taken. The MBG's view is the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform must have the lead role in defining the overall institutional framework and explaining it to the public and others.

  13.  The MBG anticipates that there will be no neat and simple solution or that there will necessarily be an outcome that has universal public support, at least in the early years. (We should not forget widespread uptake of broadband is very recent).

  14.  With TV broadcasting, there are few producers, operating in a definable geographic region. The regulatory settlement is neat and relatively well understood. Nevertheless, it is still an enormously complex task, balancing issues of freedom of speech, economics and standards of taste and decency.

  15.  With hundreds of millions of producers and publishers operating trans-nationally and new issues emerging very suddenly, the regulatory task for the Internet is an order of magnitude more complex. Moreover the outcome may fall short of what the public would like when compared to, say, broadcast regulation—but it may be the best achievable (at least in the short term). Perhaps we already have the optimum mix of institutional arrangements; they just need to be better presented and understood.

  16.  There is no simple answer or one institution that is capable of dealing with all the issues.

  17.  The range of topics is too broad and the issues often go beyond the realm of just communications policy. Take, for example, "cyber-bullying". Cyber-bullying is an online manifestation of a real-life problem. It would be wrong to consider the matters separately and so it is right that the relevant government department has the lead in addressing the topic (the DCSF, in this case), rather than the communications regulator. The same goes for terrorism (Home Office) and violent crime (also Home Office), consulting all relevant stakeholders.

  18.  The regulatory framework is a blend of legislation, co-regulation and self-regulation, with, for practical reasons of enforcement, a heavy emphasis on the latter.

  19.  In addition, everyone—including children, parents and teachers will have to be much better educated in how to use the Internet constructively, safely and responsibly. This will include making proper use of the tools such as virus protection, firewalls and parental controls.

  20.  It is only when we have assessed the effectiveness of the existing arrangements (and acknowledge that no activity is free from risk) that we will be able to move beyond the current approach, which might often be characterised as piecemeal and even knee-jerk. What is lacking currently is a dispassionate assessment and the courage to consider that regulation and legislation are not going to be silver bullets in this instance.

  21.  The new framework also requires a new style of leadership. Whereas with national regulation (such as in broadcast), the Government has enough concentrated power to set regulation and enforce it, with the Internet, governance and power structures are so diffuse that leadership has to rely on persuasion, political currency and shared interests to achieve desired goals.

  22.  In the UK we have seen some models of this happening already. For example, the mobile operators code of practice for self-regulation of content was a world first in 2004 and formed the basis for similar codes around the world, including the EU Framework for safer use of mobiles (A framework that was published by European operators and endorsed by Commissioner Reding).

  23. In summary, the Committee's inquiry will have achieved much if it persuades the Government and BERR in particular to create and describe a coherent regulatory framework from the institutional building blocks that now exist. It will then be much easier to identify any gaps (if any) and then address the specific issues that are currently on the table and the future issues that will undoubtedly arise.


  24.  Even though there has been no overall regulatory framework, the UK's mobile operators have been a pioneering force in developing appropriate self-regulatory measures for consumer protection. We have also been active partners in initiatives taken by Government (such as the Home Secretary's Task Force for Child Protection on the Internet) and the wider industry (such as the Internet Watch Foundation). The detail of this activity is set out more fully in the response to the Byron Review below.

  25.  To provide a context, the MBG sets out for the Committee some background and recent history of developments in the mobile sector.

  26.  When mobile phones were first introduced into the UK in 1985, it was expected that a fully mature market would consist of about 250,000 people, mostly senior business executives. Today, the UK has over 70 million active subscriptions (115% of the population), the second highest penetration in the G7 and Europe (after Italy, with 139%).[19] The UK is home to one of the most competitive markets in the world with the four largest operators having fairly comparable market shares, a fifth with a significant foothold since launch in 2003 and a large MVNO with over 4.5 million subscribers.

  27.  The mobile industry in the UK has been an enormous success story and is now a very significant sector. Operators in the UK directly employ over 37,000 staff.[20] Turnover for mobile communications services is £13.9 billion per annum.[21] Investment in fixed capital equipment is in the order of £2.3 billion per annum. An analysis conducted in 2004 by CEBR on behalf of O2 calculated that the mobile industry accounted for 2.3% of GDP.[22] Only the Construction and Hotel/Restaurant sectors are larger in the UK economy.

  28.  The UK operations of the five network operators remit approximately £800 million to the Consolidated Fund, in terms of corporation tax, employers national insurance and VAT each year. £55 million is paid to the Treasury in annual spectrum fees. This is in addition to the £22 billion paid for 3G spectrum in 2000, which saves the Government around £900 million per annum in debt interest, making a total direct contribution to the public purse of £1.75 billion per annum.

  29.  In addition to the direct contribution, mobility and other mobile services have contributed considerably to productivity improvements in other sectors of the economy. For example, mobility has delivered more efficient use of mobile work forces and vehicle fleets, faster and more immediate communication for managers and executives working on time critical projects, construction, journalism, sales and public safety.

  30.  The contribution is not just economic. Mobile operators handle over 15 million 999 calls per annum (40,000 per day), many of which involve life threatening situations. Location services are used extensively in the utilities, NHS and social services to keep an eye on carers working alone in high-risk environments. Text messaging is used by Government; (for example, to contact tourists after the Asian Tsunami, helping the FCO to cope with a terrible situation).

  31.  The early steps in mobile focused on delivering ubiquitous and reliable communications for voice and text. Today, the mobile is evolving into an all-in-one device for communications, transaction processing and entertainment.

  32.  A very large proportion of mobile devices sold today have colour screens, Internet browsers, cameras etc. and their memories and processing power have improved dramatically. 3G networks are fairly widely deployed. Some operators have either announced plans or have already upgraded their networks with HSPA.[23] The Mobile Data Association is stating that around 15.5 million web/wap page impressions are being recorded per month from mobile devices. PhonepayPlus estimates that mobile subscribers spend around £800 million per annum on premium rate services.

  33.  M Metrics has measured some of the value-added uses that appeal to consumers:[24]
% of subscribers
Browsed for news and information14.5%
Used e-mail (personal and/or work)9.3%
Purchased ringtone5.4%
Downloaded mobile game4.0%
Purchased screensaver2.2%
Listened to downloaded music2.0%

  Adult content did not show up on the survey as a significant category. It may be that those surveyed did not admit to consuming adult content but it is also a reasonably popular category (and sits behind access controls to prevent access by minors).


  34. Hand in hand with the economic success of mobile communications, the UK's mobile operators have developed appropriate self-regulatory measures for consumer protection.

    —  The UK mobile operators were the first in the world to publish a self-regulatory content code for mobile,[25] which requires customers to prove that they are at least 18 before getting access to adult commercial content.

    —  The Code was published on 2004 and has been very successful in meeting its objectives. Code has been used as a basis for similar codes around the world, including the EU Framework for safer use of mobiles (A framework that was published by European operators and endorsed by Commissioner Reding). The details of the Code and our experience of its effectiveness are set out fully in the response to the Byron review (as attached).[26]

    —  All mobile operators are engaged members of the Home Office Task Force for child protection on the Internet and have actively supported the development of good practice models (such as the soon to be published guideline on social networking).

    —  Mobile operators (under the auspices of the Mobile Broadband Group) are represented on the Committee for Advertising Practice. Advertising on the mobile platform is subject to the oversight and rulings of the Advertising Standards Authority.

    —  All mobile operators have very constructive working relationships with all the law enforcement agencies and regulators such as Ofcom and PhonepayPlus.

    —  Mobile operators are also represented on the DCSF task Force on Cyberbullying and have contributed actively to the Guidelines.

    —  All mobile operators are members of the Internet Watch Foundation

  35.  The remit of the Internet Watch Foundation covers child sexual abuse images anywhere in the world and obscene and racial content hosted in the UK. The reason for the difference in geographic remit is that the definitions for the latter two categories are fairly specific to the UK, while the definition of a child sexual abuse image is almost universal.

  36.  There are also two very distinct strategies for combating UK based content and overseas based content.

  37.  In the UK, under the IWF's code of practice the mobile operators would respond to a "notice and take-down" request for any of the "in remit" content. In practice it is extremely rare for such a notice to be served. Less than 1% of such content is hosted in the UK.

  38.  "Notice and take down" though is only effective for UK hosted content. For overseas content, the mobile operators have agreed to block customer access to sites that the IWF has listed as containing illegal images of child abuse. It is in offence in the UK to possess such images and so blocking is used to protect the casually inquisitive or an accidental encounter with such material on line rather than to prevent the determined paedophile from accessing it.

  39.  The UK model for dealing with child sexual abuse images has been very successful. There are three main reasons for this:

    —  while the IWF is self-regulatory, it has been backed by clear law and partnership with law enforcement

    —  parliament and the courts have brought about a fairly well understood definition of what type of content is illegal

    —  IWF has considerable expertise in assessing the content in question

    —  The law enforcement agencies in the UK (and generally overseas as well) are very responsive partners in following up on leads passed to them by the IWF

  40.  The mobile operators, in principle, would support the IWF acting as a consumer hotline and assessment point for the new category of content "extreme pornography" as envisaged by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. There are still discussions to be had about the precise definition and we understand that the Government is considering representations.

  41.  Once the UK definition of "extreme pornography" is in place, the mobile operators will respond to "notice and take down" requests for UK hosted content.

  42.  The effectiveness of the IWF model for tackling race hatred has not been so clear cut. As very little race hate content is hosted in the UK, this has not presented a problem in practice. However, the IWF has not received the necessary guidance and training on how to assess the content nor has any law enforcement agency been designated to follow up on actionable reports received and passed on by the IWF.

  43.  For a self-regulatory agency such as the IWF to be an effective referral point for the public and issuer of take-down notices", there needs to be a number of elements in place: a clear definition of content that is illegal to host, effective guidance as to how it is applied and a designated law enforcement agency to pursue actionable reports. These factors, along with whether it was illegal to possess, would have to be taken into account when considering how to deal with other categories of potentially illegal content, such as incitement to terrorism.


  44.  In our response to the Byron review, the MBG made the point that consumer education is a key part of making sure that customers are able to use the new media services responsibly and safely. The key messages from that response are restated below:

    —  Mobile operators recognise that they do not control every aspect of a customer's use of the technology and that customer education is vital.

    —  Successful strategies have to include schools and parents in teaching children how to use a mobile safely and responsibly.

    —  Mobile operators are committed to customer education and media literacy.

    —  A range of web based and printed resources are available to inform children and parents about how to stay safe and act responsibly.

    —  Mobile operators have also partnered with expert organisations such as Childnet International, National Family and Parenting Institute and NSPCC to develop comprehensive and accessible educational materials.

  45.  For a fuller discussion of the child protection measures taken by the mobile operators, the MBG has pleasure in submitting in full its evidence to the Byron review.[27]

February 2008

19   Ofcom's International Communications Market, 2007 Report Back

20   Aggregation of staff numbers taken from most recently filed accounts for the UK operations of the five mobile networks Back

21   Ofcom: The Communications Market 2007 Back

22 Back

23   HSPA-a 3G upgrade- High Speed Packet Access (or a variant HSDPA-High Speed Downlink Packet Access) Back

24   M Metrics Int'l consumer survey, Sept 2006 Back

25 Back

26   Not printed. Back

27   Not printed. Back

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